BWW Review: Hilariously Audacious Sequel POOR YELLA REDNECKS Premieres at South Coast Repertory
If you are wondering whether it's necessary for you to have seen Qui Nguyen's critically-acclaimed 2015 play VIETGONE in order to enjoy (or even get) its superior new sequel POOR YELLA REDNECKS, then don't worry too much about it.
While having seen that excellent first chapter is certainly an enhancement to this new experience in order to make a direct connection between both plays (at least for a bit in the beginning) , this incredibly funny, incredibly innovative, and incredibly well-acted follow-up is, by itself, a singular, superb stand-alone gem. I truly cannot recommend this play-with-music enough.
All those loud laughs you're hearing in Costa Mesa for the past few weeks? They're all likely coming from South Coast Repertory, where this entertaining and thought-provoking must-see sequel is currently being presented in its first full World Premiere production through April 27, 2019 as part of the Tony Award-winning theater's annual Pacific Playwright's Festival (which, coincidentally, is where this play had its first staged reading and where the original VIETGONE had its World Premiere production as well).
Wildly exuberant, unabashedly over-the-top, and gleefully imaginative, this truthful but lovingly embellished biography that continues the story of Nguyen's real life parents---and real life live-in grandmother---is, by all accounts, a fascinating, uniquely Asian-American story of hardship and perseverance in an area of the country that's not exactly too welcoming to those from foreign lands speaking in a foreign tongue. And yet in spite of its cultural specificity, POOR YELLA REDNECKS busts out of the stage as a universally authentic, communally humorous, and emotionally relatable theater piece to anyone with a pulse and an open mind.
This fresh sequel, just like its first installment (at least here at SCR), is once again under the confident direction of May Adrales, who helms this exceedingly more purposely amped-up production with a game openness to showcase any of the fantastical scenarios cooked up by Nguyen's imaginative genre-bending script, which whizzes back and forth from soapy melodrama and angsty, explosively-delivered hip-hop rhymes, to wacky sitcom-style vignettes, comic book-flavored sequences, and even, yes, AVENUE Q-style puppetry!
This kind of anything-and-everything moxie makes Nguyen's unique and riveting approach to stage storytelling so enjoyable to watch.
On the surface, POOR YELLA REDNECKS---like its initial chapter VIETGONE, which recounted his parents' chance meeting then romancing while dropped into the same U.S. refugee camp after hurriedly escaping the horrors of war in their native Vietnam---is presented as a colorful, nostalgic trip back to the past. But thanks to Nguyen's wildly creative storytelling that utilizes a plethora of different theatrical and even cinematic devices, his plays feel filtered and enhanced through a modern day lens, thanks to winking pop culture references, a winning unabashed need to entertain the audience directly, and even the pointed skewering of old-school (i.e. stereotypical) tropes with wit and whimsy. All of this makes this uniquely-voiced play seem marinated in a sense of innovative newness.
Even from the get-go, the play audaciously diverges from the usual, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to allow its characters to speak/rap directly to the audience as if we're privy to inside information that no one else besides the characters gets to know.
The play even starts almost as if it hasn't started at all, setting the tone for what would end up being a play where the playwright himself, in full glorious transparency, lets the audience in right away on how this new play will be told in a highly stylized way that keeps the story and information truthful, even when its theatrical presentation is immensely exaggerated and heightened for expanded audience enjoyment.
To that, I say, thank you, Mr. Nguyen.
With house lights still up as theatergoers are still finding their way to their seats, some shutting off cell phones, others unwrapping their lozenges, out from the wings comes a young man, casually dressed as if he's on his way to grab a Starbucks, and steps forward and identifies himself as "the playwright." For about a minute there---considering this is a World Premiere production---I actually really thought it was the real Mr. Nguyen himself, here in the flesh about to address the audience and make a personal introduction to his latest play (had I bothered to make time to peruse the program beforehand, I probably would'n't have made the assumption).
From a piece of paper, the actor, Paco Tolson, here portraying the playwright (among other roles throughout the play) reads out the usual pre-show announcement about turning off cell phones and that recording devices are not allowed. He then tells the audience that the characters in the play are fictional, which earns a few scattered laughs, because clearly this probably won't be the case.
"Okay, who the F am I trying to kid?" he exclaims. "Clearly this is about a few people I may or may not know. But please remember, I do it with love."
That love will, of course, prove palpable. That pre-show disclaimer is soon followed by him barking a few requests (well, orders) to the production's staff and cast ("She's supposed to have glasses!") to get specific details right before he cues a booming voice-over of a narrator who has---to everyone's gleeful surprise---a British accent, accompanied by music that sounds like it was ripped right off an old school Nintendo gaming console.
We soon happen upon a round table in the middle of a modest home---a familiar setting for those who remember the ending of VIETGONE---where Qui is interviewing his ornery 70-year-old mom Tong (Maureen Sebastian, in old-age makeup and wig), who is puzzled with why anyone would care to watch a play about her and her husband.
After a bit more convincing from her son, Tong agrees to recount her story, only if Qui presents the play with three specific traits: first, it needs to be told with all its harsh truths, warts and all, without any sugar-coating of the hardships involved. Second, she wants the tables turned and have the white characters in the play sound the way she hears them. This time around, they are the incoherent foreigners in the story (imagine Sixteen Candles where Long Duk Dong speaks in perfect English while all the white folks take on the offensive stereotype instead). And lastly, she wants herself and her fellow Vietnamese characters---including Qui's grandmother---to be heard speaking in modern, current English (including repetitive cuss words), in much the same way that Qui talks.
"F yeah!" Tong shouts proudly---instantly transformed just from Qui's magical typing.
And thus begins Nguyen's trippy, hella funny throwback narrative, filled with passionately-performed hip-hop, Animé-inspired projections, the random cinematic Martial Arts fight sequence, and, yes, the most F-Bombs I have ever heard in a two-act play that had me just as giddy as a school boy hearing naughty late night comics on HBO while my parents were sound asleep in their room. But aside from being funny, POOR YELLA REDNECKS is also a moving tribute to the struggles of our parents, no matter what cultural background you may come from.
With rules in place and Tong now more willing to overshare, the story officially begins with an early flashback to 1975. Tong describes meeting Qui's dad Quang (Tim Chiou) at a relocation camp in Fort Chaffee (events we first learn in VIETGONE) before they eventually moved to El Dorado to settle into their new American life.
While high from a shared joint on the back of a pick-up truck, the sort-of couple entertains the thought of marrying each other---even though Tong is still seeing a boyfriend, and Quong is still nursing guilt over his escape from Vietnam, leaving behind a wife and children he has all but given up trying to contact or to investigate if they're even still alive.
The scene serves as a bit of a foreboding preview of how each handles life in general. Tong, the more grounded and practical of the pair, sees the semi-marriage proposal as nothing more than a lark, and even admits that her feelings for Quong lean more towards lust rather than love. But the more idealistic, pie-in-the-sky Quong thinks marriage might just be what they both need to give their lives a new jumpstart, and that they'll "thrive in this foreign land" better... if they do it together.
"F it, my answer's 'Yes'!" raps Tong, after just a bit of confident but not-so-exhaustive convincing.
POOR YELLA REDNECKS then resumes the Nguyen family story in 1981---six years later---where Qui's parents are still married and now living a not-so-easy life in a trailer. Tong's outspoken, spitfire of a mom, Grandmother Huong (scene-stealer Samantha Quan) lives with them, helping to look after young Qui (whom they affectionately call "Little Man") when the parents are at work. Young Qui, by the way, is here portrayed with a life-size puppet voiced by Eugene Young, with puppeteering duties shared by Young and Tolson. The sight of Qui's younger self as a puppet is certainly a bold theatrical choice that at first seems odd, but eventually becomes almost divinely poetic---a character figuratively caught between worlds and affected/manipulated by those around him.
Huong, whose foul-mouthed opinions and sharp-edged snark are never in short supply, spends her days watching ridiculous American sitcoms on TV while always on the ready with a knife at arm's reach should intruders decide to invade her space. Though she may not be in the same dangerous environment as she was back in war-ravaged Vietnam, this town of El Dorado, for her, has shown enough of its ugly sides to merit such vigilance.
Like all citizens of, um, the planet we're all living in, their struggles and dreams are not unique to their culture: they, like everyone else, want to have good, comfortable, safe, and fulfilling lives with secure, good-paying jobs while also providing a better future for their children.
Unfortunately, despite the "safety" provided by now living in America, new obstacles---and old prejudices---keep coming forward to keep their lives as not-affluent immigrants extra challenging than it already is.
Tong worries constantly about losing a job she doesn't particularly like: as a waitress at a local diner that's on the brink of closing its doors for good. Overworked, underpaid, and always stressed about how to pay their bills, she often comes home late and exasperated only to find that her seemingly ne'er-do-well husband---who seems to be the kind of guy who gets excited with the thought of doing something "fun" instead of opting for something more adult and responsible---is out of the house getting drunk with his bad influence of a pal Nhan (Young, in one of many roles).
Even worse, she learns that Little Man isn't doing well at school, which Tong assumes is a byproduct of being around Grandma Huong and her non-English-speaking ways too much. Assimilation, it seems, is Little Man's best chance at survival---and to maybe slow down all the bullying he has to endure from his classmates. For Little Man, though, he'd rather escape into his own fantasy world with his ultimate hero Spider-Man fighting off the bad guys.
With so many factors already working tirelessly to keep them down, a new, more dire complication arises that throws Quang and Tong's already wobbly marriage into a tailspin, setting off a chain of events that tests everyone's mettle even further. But rather than surrender to the difficulties, each character finds a way to adjust---if not only for survival but to keep the love of family top of mind above all else.
Aside from being uproariously funny and remarkably entertaining, POOR YELLA REDNECKS is also, deep within its dazzling theatricality, an honorable, affectionately inspiring story about the struggles of immigrants---no matter what country or heritage of origin that may be---and how those struggles have a lasting effect on generations that follow. At a time when part of the nation is too quick to blame the problems of our lives on a population whose dreams, aspirations, and desires are remarkably similar to their own, this play illuminates these commonalities in such a creative way that it's hard not to see things from a different point of view. While we collectively laugh at the silly antics and the saucy line deliveries of a culturally specific storyline swathed in the language of American pop culture, we also bare witness to the strength, tenacity, and power of family, particularly one whose heritage is an integral part of their identity.
While it might have been thrown out as a casual joke at the top of the play, the directive demanded by Nguyen's theatrically-embellished mom, is perhaps the play's most important narrative trait: that Qui, the playwright, must not shy away from revealing the "hard truths" even if its packaged and wrapped up with hilarity, hip hop, and animated backdrops. Nguyen sticks to this mantra and the results make for a play that can be both pop-tastic entertainment as well as be an incisive, thoughtful examination of what it takes for flawed human beings to endure being an actual stranger living in a strange land.
As I have mentioned repeatedly, POOR YELLA REDNECKS is a grand achievement in visual storytelling. There's an essence of cinematic quality to Nguyen's work here, as if these creatively devised elements would be welcomed just as wonderfully on the stage as they would be on the big screen or even as an animated film or TV series. His younger self in the play is obsessed with comic book characters, so it shouldn't be any surprise that adult Nguyen's storytelling is augmented and colorfully illustrated with the visual language of comic books---from the awesome animated projections that pop and whiz throughout hyperactive moments of the play to even the (spoiler alert) kung-fu style action fight sequence that's equal parts superhero badass and 60's Batman kitschy. All, of course, hilarious AF.
A sequel naturally calls for more enhancements on what is offered in the original installment, and POOR YELLA REDNECKS certainly lives up to that challenge. Complementing and punctuating Nguyen's sharp words and story-forwarding hip-hop rhymes is a stunning combination of theatrical wizardry from scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, sound designer Shane Rettig (who also composed the play's original music), and projection designer Jared Mezzocchi. These elements are further accentuated by Valérie Thérèse Bart's costumes, Sean Cawelti's "Little Man" puppet design, and Raven Bartlett's eye-popping video illustrations.
The five exceptional, hard-working actors tasked to bring this new chapter of Nguyen's parents' story to life all give awards-worthy performances. Sebastian gives a fierce portrayal of Qui's remarkable mother Tong that straddles measured vulnerability with remarkable strength. Chiou's charm and natural swagger is balanced with his noticeable sensitivity. Together, their chemistry is palpable, egging on the audience to wholeheartedly root for them to succeed. Quan's showy role as tell-it-like-it-is Grandma Huong keeps you laughing steadily with each buoyant appearance---right up until the point when she makes the most heartbreaking sacrifice of all the characters. The multi-talented Tolson and Young play their respective multiple roles with great distinction, including their heartwarming pas de deux with a puppet as well as their turn as lethal ninjas. Tolson also portrays his role of Qui, the playwright, with great nuance.
As in VIETGONE, the rap segments here, while at first jarring in its juxtaposition, are exactly supposed to be just that... jarring---becoming the chosen avenue in which characters express their most explosive of emotions while at the same time furthering the story along. Eventually, when I heard someone during intermission say that the play was making an attempt to copy HAMILTON, I almost felt personally attacked, even though I had nothing to do with its writing. Admittedly I also enjoyed watching all the white/blue-hairs in the audience wince a bit each time a character dropped a deliciously rhymed F-Bomb into the mix.
It is exactly that kind of spunk and sass---combined with such boundless creativity---that, for me, elevates the play to being one of the best ones I've experienced this season. With its embrace of cultural specificity blended with pop culture references and explosive inventiveness all around, POOR YELLA REDNECKS is far from being just another ordinary fish-out-of-water story. Funny, touching and incredibly hopeful despite its "hard truths," the play is an enjoyable way to see the experiences of an underrepresented voice in popular entertainment. If this is indeed part of a planned trilogy, then I for one cannot wait to see what's next.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
South Coast Repertory presents POOR YELLA REDNECKS by Qui Nguyen. Directed by May Adrales. Performances continue at South Coast Repertory through April 27, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.